Virgin Voyages's Valiant Lady review: On board the adults-only ship with Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson, in typical style, is holding court in a corner of The Dock, an expansive open-deck area at the stern of the Valiant Lady, the second ship in his spankingly new Virgin Voyages cruise line fleet.

At one point he asks whether anyone knows what the deepest harbour in the world is. There are blank looks all round until Branson proclaims: "It's Pearl Harbour."

It isn't, though. It's actually Sydney Harbour and it's perhaps something the ebullient billionaire can check out for himself when Virgin Voyages – in the shape of the 2770-passenger Resilient Lady – arrives in Australia in late 2023 for its maiden cruise Down Under.

That ship will eventually make Melbourne its home and cruise the east coast of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. It will be based at the historic Station Pier in Port Melbourne from the 2023-24 summer (Station Pier has long been the home of the Spirit of Tasmania Bass Strait ferry, but it moves to Geelong in October). The 2023-24 summer "wave" season will be the second full seasonal outing for the cruise industry since its comeback following a disastrous pandemic-induced becalming.

Virgin Voyages' arrival is something of a cruise coup for Australia and an even bigger one for the Victorian capital which has been traditionally the poor relation of the Down Under cruising boom, ceding much of the lucrative market to Sydney and Brisbane. Before the pandemic, cruising was estimated to contribute $5.2 billion to the Australian economy.

The Resilient Lady is the third (after the Scarlet Lady and the Valiant Lady) of what is expected to be a fleet of four (Brilliant Lady is still being built). Or maybe five – even Branson isn't sure at this moment: "I said the same thing about Virgin Atlantic and look what happened there."

Not that it matters, as all the ships are identical. Imagine one of those funky modern childcare centres full of toys, playground equipment and furniture bursting with bright, primary colours. Now imagine giving the kids a shedload of sweets and sugary drinks, sitting back, and watching the show. Now send the ankle-biters packing and replace them with grown-ups.

That's pretty much the vibe on board the $1 billion Valiant Lady as we join it for its maiden, week-long, adults-only voyage from Barcelona, around the Mediterranean and back. Care to come along for the wild ride?


Sir Richard and Virgin Voyages chief executive Tom McAlpin are on board for a few days to mark the moment and in both cases, jump into the swimming pool fully clothed. It's that sort of cruise. Which is to say it's not like any other cruise.


This entry into the world of cruising is in keeping with "Branson the Great Disruptor". Music, airlines, outer space – he's stirred them all up at one time or another – and now looks like throwing a serious curve ball into the normally placid ocean-going world.

One experienced American passenger (known on this ship as "sailors") describes other cruises as "ordinary" compared to this one. True, It's a sexy, exotic, wild ride which doesn't take itself too seriously but still manages to get the food and booze and the on-board entertainment oh so right.

This is a ship for the young, the young-at-heart, and the Instagram generation. It's the sort of whimsy Willy Wonka would have come up with given a spare billion dollars and modern technology - a rampant rock-n-roll beast where you can rest assured you won't get another show tune from Les Mis or Oklahoma.

However, you may find yourself belly laughing at drag queen Miss Titty Kaka or watching a risqué show that'll never let you look at a watermelon in the same way again. And how many cruise ships sport a vinyl records store (starring the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks album, produced in 1977 by Virgin Records), a hipster barber, a massive spa-cum-hammam, and a tattoo parlour?


Painted a startling silver-grey with the usual bright scarlet Virgin livery, the ships can accommodate 2700 passengers and 1160 crew, who gad about in a striped uniform that pays homage to traditional Breton sailors' shirts while incorporating the Virgin "V".

It really is a chic creche for adults, awash with a myriad bright shiny things to eat and drink and see and do, from a nook featuring old video games (Space Invaders, anyone?) to the old-fashioned swings, see-saws and roundabouts that pepper the upper decks.

There's a bright red jogging circuit up top, quirky, cartoonish artworks framing the stairs down to the swimming pool and a line-up of nightly entertainment that ranges from dangerously cutting-edge dance shows to multimedia club nights and blues musicians in one of the many bars.

There are plenty of dining options, too, with 20 eateries on board at no extra charge and which offer everything from Korean BBQ to hot dogs, ramen and posh Mexican.

The core restaurants include The Wake (high-end steak and seafood), Extra Virgin (Italian), Pink Agave (Mexican), Gunbae (Korean), the Test Kitchen (experimental cuisine), Razzle Dazzle (vegetarian with a twist), and The Pizza Place.

Each restaurant is a feast for the eyes and the stomach. As testament to the standards, I'll confess that as an unrepentant carnivore and a serial hater of pizza (sorry Italy) two of my favourite meals were a white truffle and egg pizza, and the totally-vegetarian-but-you-wouldn't-know-it Impossible Burger in Razzle Dazzle.

Gunbae, the communal Korean barbecue eatery, has amazing food and high-energy staff who know how to make a night of it. The drinking game alone is worth the visit. There's also a food court – The Galley – with more than eight places to eat (including a bakery, a coffee shop, an all-day breakfast bar and shops to get ramen, fresh bento boxes and burgers).


On The Dock, Branson says he first thought about entering the cruising industry when he was about 27 but "never managed to get the money together".

"I thought it would be a good idea to have a cruise line for under 30-year-olds," he laughs. "Then it was under 40-year-olds, then under 50-year-olds … today, it's the young at heart."

Now an energetic 71 years young, he's finally got round to it, bringing his trademark combination of chutzpah, wide-eyed delight and business savvy to an industry dominated by a handful of cruise lines.

In doing so, he's shaking up an industry long seen as the bailiwick of older people who prefer a night of ballroom dancing or an ABBA tribute show to chucking themselves into a pool fully clothed or playing Donkey Kong. One of the major attractions, says Branson, is the adults-only rule.

"Because we don't have children on board, we can do things that other cruise ships can't. All the space that's normally put aside for entertaining kids has been given over to running tracks, to the larger workout areas, and much better spaces for the restaurants. We got rid of the buffet, too, which was another thing people said they didn't like.

"We've also got incredible staff. There are 82 different nationalities working across the two ships so far. What we look for is the same thing we looked for all those years ago when we started [the Virgin Atlantic airline] – people who genuinely care about other people, people who won't call someone sir or madam but will have a bit of banter.

"They're not Stepford Wives – they're willing to interact with the passengers, have a joke, have a laugh and just be natural."


One of the big changes has been to split the cruise director role across no less than 13 different people and whacky categories.

The Valiant Lady's entertainment director, Meg Monhollen, explains: "I've been in the cruise industry for years so I know the stereotypical cruise director role; it's that one person that's trying to appeal to 600 or 4000 guests and it can become that cheesy, schticky, tell-all-the-same jokes sort of thing.

"Around here we use the term positive disruption, and I think that's a pretty good description. I find that more people can relate to 13 personalities better than 2000 people trying to relate to just the one cookie-cutter guy."

Among the 13 "personalities" that roam the ship there are seven who have more specific roles. These include the Artist, the Diva, the Gamer, the Hostess, the Balancer (health and wellness), the Foodie and the Charmer (up-close magic).

In keeping Virgin Voyages' "Epic Sea Change For All" philosophy, even the traditional role of a "Godmother for the fleet" has been transformed. The role has gone to singer Jennifer Lopez but her title is "Investor and Chief Entertainment and Lifestyle Officer". J.Lo as IceLo? Well, even Sir Richard Branson's got to drop the disco ball sometime.



Virgin Voyages' seven-day Irresistible Med cruise starts in Barcelona and visits Toulon, Marina di Carrara, Ajaccio, Cagliari, and Ibiza (two nights) before returning to Barcelona.


Prices start from $US3003 ($4180) for a Sea Terrace cabin, twin share. Basic Wi-Fi, soft drinks, and all food are included in the price (exclusive of taxes). Other types of accommodation include the Seriously Suite ($US4466 per cabin), the Posh Suite ($US11,358) and the Massive Suite ($US16,748). Australasian cruises from 2023-24 start from $US262.50 per person for a two-night Melbourne-Hobart-Burnie-Melbourne voyage to a $US1592.50 per person Auckland-Wellington-Christchurch-Dunedin-Hobart-Melbourne-Sydney itinerary. See


Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Virgin Voyages.



Open your cabin door and have the lights turn on and the curtains open automatically? It never gets old. Nor does the little tablet on the desk which controls the brightness of those lights, works the TV, and basically does everything but tuck you in at night. There's even an "activate cinema mode" button which turns the lights down and closes the curtains when you settle in to watch your favourite movie.


The Virgin Voyages app enables you to book tables at the restaurants, book shore excursions, lets you know what's happening on the ship, and shows how much you've got left in your electronic "wallet". After a day or two it becomes indispensable. As does the little bracelet doohickie (100 per cent ecycled materials) you get on boarding. This opens your cabin door, checks you off and on the boat and is how you pay for your booze.


The ship's design is state of the art, enabling it to use less fuel while sliding through the water. It has LED lighting throughout, your cabin shuts itself down when you're not in it, there is no single-use plastic on the ship, and the kitchen stoves don't turn on until you put a pan on them. "It's part of our DNA," says chief executive McAlpin, "to focus on the environment, to reduce waste, reduce packaging, to make sure everything is more reusable."


On each voyage there is the soon-to-be-famous (or infamous) Scarlet Night where people are encouraged to wear red and head to the pool deck. It's an evening that starts off with the crew and entertainers putting on a high intensity show around the pool and ends up with everyone in the pool. Make sure your mobile is waterproof, is my advice, or leave it back in your suite..


There is no shortage of things to do off the ship. At Toulon, a port city on southern France's Mediterranean coast, there were no less than 13 excursions to choose from, and a massive 23 options at Marina di Carrara in Italy. These can range from simple city walking tours to kayaking, cycling, helicopter flights and truffle hunting. On our maiden voyage they were far from perfect and needed more bedding in so perhaps, in this case, less might be more. But you can always just walk into town and explore.